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Fine Dust in Korea‚ Looming as a Primary Task of the Government

News reports about fine dust have increased dramatically this year in Korea and public concern is also growing remarkably. The presidential election held in May confirmed the arisen interest. All major candidates promised to tackle the fine dust issue and it was not an exception for the new Korean President Moon Jae-in to suggest the related policy also. The Sungkyun Times (SKT) investigates the current state of fine dust in Korea and delves into the problems of the government’s countermeasures. In addition, the SKT interviewed the Director General of the Ministry of Environment to examine the efforts and future plans of the government, and seeks possible solutions with reference to other nations’ endeavors.

Fine Dust and the Increased Public Interest in Korea

Fine Dust

According to the universal standard in the field of atmospheric science, a fine dust particle is smaller than ten micrometers (㎛). Considering that one micrometer is one millionth of a meter, a fine dust particle is less than a 20th of the diameter of a strand of hair. This microscopic dust can either come from natural sources like sand and pollen or from artificial sources like smoke pollution and car exhaust fumes. In fact, fine dust from the latter has been a big issue recently. The World Health Organization (WHO) classified fine dust as a Group 1 carcinogen in 2013 and also noted that the dust generated the premature deaths of seven million people in 2014. Heavy metals contained in the dust, such as lead, cumulate in the body easily and can circulate through the blood, causing health issues like respiratory and cardiac disorders. As fine dust is extremely harmful to health; likewise, Korea is facing a dismal reality. While the annual average density of fine dust in OECD countries is currently 15㎍/㎥ and decreasing continuously, that in Korea is still increasing, reaching about 29 ㎍/㎥ at present. OECD warned that Korea is expected to have the highest premature mortality rates by 2060 because of fine dust. Additionally, a rise in medical expenses and a decline in labor productivity and crop yields might provoke economic loss of an estimated 0.63 % of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is about \35 trillion.

Upsurge of Public Interest in Korea

As the high concentration of fine dust has distressed many people in Korea this year, the public interest towards air pollution rose. In fact, compared to last year, the average density of fine dust increased by 2㎍/㎥. People began to purchase more anti-pollution products, which are designed to protect people from pollution. For example, the sales of Korea Filter (KF) masks like the KF80 and KF94 masks increased sharply. KF is a Korean standard that signifies the interrupting performance of the filter of a mask. The higher the number, the higher the level of effectiveness and KF80 masks can block 80% of fine dust. According to Timon, a mobile app-based shopping mall in Korea, the sales volume of KF94 products increased by 271% in 2017, while the volume of ordinary masks declined by 20% compared to last year. In addition, a lot of people began to take a profound interest in mobile applications that show the density of fine dust based on the WHO standard, which is stricter than that of Korean criteria. MiseMise, a representative mobile application, not only uses the WHO standard, but also provides information on the current level of fine dust in eight specific stages. While the Korean government only classifies the phases into four different stages (good, average, bad, very bad), MiseMise separates the “bad” stage into four categories (bad, quiet bad, very bad, and worst).

“Worst” Stage of the Fine Dust Level from MiseMise

Problems of Countermeasures in Korea

Although the public concern over fine dust is growing rapidly, there are numerous problems regarding the countermeasures that the Korean government is taking against the dust.

Problems in Coping with The Foreign Source

The Korean government claims that fine dust from China normally accounts for 30 to 50% of the total amount in Korea and this can reach up to 60 to 80% when the density is high. The government, however, cannot support this assertion with any scientific evidence. The result of the measurement conducted solely by Korea is not considered to be reliable data. Realistically, since there are obviously no marks of origin such as “Made in China” on the dust particles, it is difficult to distinguish the true origin of each particle. Furthermore, the government is not appealing strongly to China to charge responsibility for fine dust currently. Some argue that the government is trying not to stimulate China, as the two nations have recently been in conflict over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Moreover, the Chinese government is being uncooperative. China demands more thorough analysis on the sources of fine dust affecting Korea and does not show interest in joint research or cooperation. Director General Park Chun-kyoo of the Ministry of Environment explained that China is showing such an attitude because if it acknowledges its influence, the country has to take responsibility.

Problems of Domestic Management

Firstly, there are problems related to the measuring instruments of fine dust particles. There are controversies over the locations of some of the devices. Many of them are installed on rooftops of public institutions, but people point out that there is more fine dust closer to the ground because air pollutants like car exhaust fumes are produced much more at street level. Some measuring instruments are even in the middle of parks like the Olympic Park, which are places with much better air quality. In addition to the problems of location, there are frequent measurement failures with some devices. Such failures occur because of malfunction in the system. For instance, from January of 2016 to March of 2017, 46% of the total measurements of the instrument on Baengnyeon Island were marked as errors. Secondly, the Korean standard of measuring fine dust is relatively loose compared to the global standard. The WHO recommends that the annual average of fine dust density should be 10㎍/㎥ and countries like the United States (US) and Japan attempt to maintain a standard of 15㎍/㎥. Korea, however, urges that a 25 ㎍/㎥ is acceptable. Moreover, the Korean standard has a broader range of the “average” stage and a narrower range of the “bad” and “very bad” stages. Medical professionals warn that it can be dangerous for health if people trust the “average” stage of the forecast in Korea and go outdoors. Some speculate that the reason for such a loose standard is that if Korea utilizes the universal criteria, then there would be too many days with a “bad” density.

Thirdly, there is a problem of passive regulation on the major domestic sources of fine dust. Many nations are currently disposing of coal-fired power plants because they cause a considerable amount of pollution from coal burning. In fact, England declared that it will shut down all of its coal-fired plants by 2025. Contrary to this global trend, however, Korea has been increasing the number of its coal-fired power plants. Greenpeace, an international environmental organization, criticized Korea in 2015 for such an issue. Another primary source of fine dust is exhaust fumes from diesel engines. European countries like Norway decided to prohibit the sale of diesel cars from 2025, while Korea has shown no signs of adopting such strong regulations for diesel.

Efforts and Plans for Improvement by the Government

Director General Park Chun-kyoo/ news.naver.com

The SKT interviewed the Director General Park Chun-kyoo of the Ministry of Environment to learn about the previous attempts and future plans of the Korean government in dealing with fine dust. The Director General started to work at the Ministry of Environment in 1991 and worked mostly in the field of climate and atmosphere. Currently, he is the Director General of the Nature Conservation Bureau.

1. Were previous fine dust policies effective?

Most policies were effective, but there were some limitations. For example, we replaced existing engines of cars with environmentally-friendly engines like Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) or installed devices that remove pollutants, like Diesel Particulate Filters (DPFs) on cars. A DPF is an instrument that captures and then combusts the fine dust in car exhaust fumes. These car policies, however, had shortcomings in that we were somewhat unsuccessful in promoting future cars such as electric-powered vehicles.

2. What are the government’s plans to cope with China?

We are going to actively help China reduce the amount of fine dust emission. We have been applying Korea’s air pollution prevention technologies like the technology of dissolving dust to some Chinese steel mills since 2016. Likewise, we assist China’s attempt to decrease contaminants by supporting 20% of the total cost and introducing our technology. We are going to expand this service in the near future. In addition, we are planning to improve the cooperation between Korea and China, which first started in 2015. Cities like Seoul and Beijing started to share measured atmospheric data. We will increase the number of cities getting involved, and obtain even more accurate data of areas near the most polluting sources. Moreover, we are currently projecting international cooperation with East Asian countries including China. With the basis of such cooperation, we are looking forward to carrying out more sophisticated joint research between our two nations.

3. What are the current fine dust policies?

There are four notable policies. The first one is focusing on reducing the domestic sources of fine dust. We will enhance the certification standard of new diesel engines and close ageing coal-fired power plants. Secondly, we will foster new industries that induce less fine dust and carbon dioxide. Thirdly, we are going to improve the forecast and alarm system by increasing accuracy via technology development. And fourthly, we will strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries. We expect that in order to conduct all of these policies from 2016 to 2020, more than five trillion won will be required.

Possible Solutions Referring to Other Nations

In order to arrange more realistic and ideal countermeasures, it is desirable to observe other nations’ efforts and policies.

Cooperation with the Involvement of a Third Party

Getting help from third parties like international organizations can provide a fruitful result in coping with foreign sources of pollution. An exemplar of this strategy is the confiict resolution between Northern Europe, England, and Germany under the lead of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). In the 1950s, forests and lakes of Scandinavia in Northern Europe were heavily destroyed because of acid rain. Air pollution from England and Western Germany were pointed out to be the main cause, but the two countries did not admit the claim. As the struggle between the two groups got intense, UNECE led a joint study of measuring the distances that pollutants have traveled since 1972. Later, the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) was signed in 1979 by the members of UNECE including the countries of Northern Europe, England, and Germany. Through this process, the problem of acid rain was solved.

Enhancement of Regulation

Some cities and countries are augmenting regulations for the main sources of fine dust. London, which has much cleaner air than Seoul, proclaimed the war against fine dust by introducing a very strong restriction on exhaust emissions. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, doubled the budget for reducing air pollution and starting in 2019, vehicles that emit excessive amounts of exhaust have to pay \35,000 to enter London each day. London is looking forward to halving the total amount of emissions by 2020 through this policy.

Among the several big tasks ahead for the Moon Jae-in administration, arranging effective fine dust countermeasures has loomed as an extremely essential problem to solve. The government promised to reduce fine dust by 30% in five years and guarantee a better environment for the public. Moreover, considering that it is the older generation’s ultimate duty to pass on a clean environment to young children, hopefully there should be broader efforts to fight against these tiny killers as soon as possible.

김하은  haeun047@naver.com

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